David Mead talks to the Birmingham-based choreographer about her new work.
As recent events show, people no longer believe what they see and hear from leaders and politicians. One might say with good reason. Fake news, especially on social media, and ‘facts’ rarely borne out in practice have become news themselves. Trust and belief systems are collapsing.
Those thoughts and more are at the heart of Rosie Kay’s new MK Ultra, which delves into the world of bizarre realm of pop culture, conspiracy theories, mind control and Illuminati imagery in pop culture. Premiering at the Birmingham Rep on March 17, Kay explores and deconstructs the weird world of conspiracy theories, symbolism, hidden messages and occult signs, subverting the subversive as she does so.
“It’s the third part of a trilogy,” Kay explains. “The first part was war with 5 Soldiers, then came religion with There is Hope. This was meant to be about politics. At least that was the starting point.” Her first thought was to do an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, but Kay soon started asking herself what it is that’s interesting about the novel, and what is in it that’s relevant to now. The answer, she says, were the associated themes of surveillance, propaganda, total war and misinformation.
Kay is noted for her rigorous investigations before starting work in the studio. “Normally I go off and do adventurous things for my research, but I was pregnant at this point, so I was much more at home. I just sat with the internet going deeper and deeper and deeper into layers upon layers of conspiracy theory stuff that I’d maybe heard about on the periphery, but not investigated.” When she chanced across a conspiracy theory about pop and pop stars, she saw immediately the intersection with dance.
‘MK Ultra’ is a CIA code word for a very real brainwashing technique developed by the US military. Although it was officially stopped in the 1970s, popular conspiracy theory believes that it is still active, with the CIA and other prominent organisations programming high profile public figures. Among the supposed entertainment automatons are celebrities such as pop stars Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Rihanna, all puppets of the ‘Illuminati’, a shadowy elite intent on creating a New World Order of authoritarian world government. So why do pop stars so often have ‘episodes’? Simple. Because the programming has faults and sometimes goes wrong, at which point the star is taken away under a cover story of drink or drug problems and reprogrammed. “Clearly, it’s bonkers,” says Kay.
Doing workshops with young people across the Midlands, Kay found these conspiracy theories were widely known. Starting off by talking about media representation, imagery and pop music, she just waited for the ‘illuminati’ words to come up. When they did, and she expressed an interest, she says, “The room would erupt. I’d say about 90% of people under 25 knew what I was talking about and knew about it more detail than me.”
Kay continues, “They go searching and researching for other theories and other explanations. In some ways that’s a good thing because they’re looking for truth, but in other ways it’s really terrifying because they have no trust at all. It’s quite fascinating about where we are, what we believe and don’t believe.”
People older would just look at her as if she was crazy, she says. “It really intrigues me that there is this gap in knowledge, and gap in reality between young people who are questioning everything and have this distrust of any mainstream media, and the over 25s, who I guess are a bit cynical and not tapped into the level of conspiracy theory that is going on.”
Young people are not just stupid believers, Kay stresses. “They can talk quite passionately about it as if it were true, but they always qualify what they say. They are very aware of it, though, and what the symbols and signs are, because it is all about a symbolic language. Once it’s pointed out to you, once you see fifty music videos, you go, ‘Oh, yeah.’ But until then, it can just pass you by.”
For MK Ultra, Kay has teamed up with television journalist Adam Curtis, well-known for films such as Bitter Lake and the recent HyperNormalisation, and the BBC series The Power of Nightmares that challenged and exposed many of the conspiracy theories behind the reporting of Islamist terrorism. “He’s made these incredible mini-documentaries that sit within the work, that really explain that some of this stuff is real.”
It was not only the ideas that interested Kay, but also that the medium for a lot of them is pop videos, and their bodies and dance routines. She explains that she watched endless videos, then just before Christmas 2016 spent a week on her own improvising. She then made the dancers (four of whom come from the West Midlands) learn what she had chosen exactly. “The first week they spent just plugged into their iPads learning dances from me. So, I’m sort of programming them and brainwashing them, which gives it a conceptual framework, although some group sections were choreographed live with them in the space.”
Kay’s choreography mashes together street dance, krumping, twerking, showgirls and more, but all done with a really contemporary mind and technique. “There’s a lot about performance and the performer, whether they’re in control or being controlled, and how they want to respond to you and you to them. There is a little narrative running through it. They all want to be stars, they all want your attention, one of them is chosen, becomes the star, but then it goes horribly wrong. Then we start to see her identity being stripped, stripped, stripped away.”
She describes MK Ultra overall as like opening a window on the ideas. She emphasises she is not passing judgement. “It’s a kind of fantastical exploration, taking the mainstream and making it avant-garde, but also vice-versa. Pop stars are important people in the world, I think. Where is art? Where is mainstream? Where is avant-garde? It’s a bit of a kind of philosophical exploration of that as well. How can I turn something that some people think of as ‘pop trash’ into really high art?”
Kay promises a “super wow” show, one that is really slick, expensive, and entertaining. “At the same time, it needs to keep chipping away at you so that you do start to care about the performers. But at the end I want to throw it straight back in everyone’s faces and say we’re all complicit in this whether you read Heat magazine or look at Snapchat where one minute you can be reading about Syria and the next about King Kardashian. We’re all complicit in this madness.”
For the costumes, Kay turned to Lady Gaga costume designer Gary Card, who she has known for a long time. Colourful and bold, yet simple, they really enhance the piece, she says.
It all sounds quite different to Kay’s recent successes, but she says, “I’m at that stage where I’m really comfortable in knowing that the quality of the work is in its intelligence and challenging nature. It doesn’t need to always look the same. There’s a kind of vibrancy and attention to detail and a kind of gut-wrenching-ness about my work. I don’t feel that I have to be a kind of brand. I want to keep pushing the boundaries. What’s best is what best serves the idea, and then I’ll use that to make sure that it really comes across.”
MK Ultra opens at the Birmingham Rep on March 17. For tickets visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk or call the box office on 0121 236 4455.
The show then continues on tour. Visit www.mkultra.dance for dates and venues.